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Movie Review: Peace (and pieces) of mind ‘Inside Out 2’

By JAKE COYLE, AP Film Writer
Published: June 16, 2024, 6:00am
2 Photos
This image released by Disney/Pixar shows, from left, Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, Embarrassment, voiced by Paul Walter Hauser,  Envy, voiced by Ayo Edebiri, Anxiety, voiced by Maya Hawke, Disgust, voiced by Liza Lapira, Anger,  voiced by Lewis Black (foreground), Fear, voiced by Tony Hale, and Sadness, voiced by Phyllis Smith, in a scene from &ldquo;Inside Out 2.&rdquo; (Disney/Pixar via AP)
This image released by Disney/Pixar shows, from left, Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, Embarrassment, voiced by Paul Walter Hauser, Envy, voiced by Ayo Edebiri, Anxiety, voiced by Maya Hawke, Disgust, voiced by Liza Lapira, Anger, voiced by Lewis Black (foreground), Fear, voiced by Tony Hale, and Sadness, voiced by Phyllis Smith, in a scene from “Inside Out 2.” (Disney/Pixar via AP) Photo Gallery

Sequels have been a touchy subject when it comes to Pixar, but it’s hard to deny the natural premise of “Inside Out 2.” It’s been nine years since “Inside Out,” yet in the span between that film and its new sequel, Riley, the young girl with a head full of emotions, has gone from 11 years old to 13. She’s just grown up a little.

Or maybe a lot. In the middle of the night, the old gang of Joy ( Amy Poehler ), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Tony Hale), Disgust (Liza Lapira) and Anger (Lewis Black) are roused from their beds by a soft beep, like a fire alarm in need of a new battery, but soon it’s sounding an all-out emergency. On their console a red light blinks. “What’s that?” one says. “Puberty,” the button reads. Soon, construction workers are swarming the control room for “demo day,” with wrecking balls making room for “the others.”

In come a new gaggle of emotions said to be more sophisticated: Anxiety ( Maya Hawke ), Envy ( Ayo Edebiri ), Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser) and Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos). The next morning, Riley wakes up to find herself unusually stinky. Life, as they say, comes at you pretty fast. “Inside Out 2” turns out to be not just a modest, inch-things-along sequel but a follow-up of cataclysmic proportions.

Tempting as it is to take any revisiting of “Inside Out” — a high water mark for not just Pixar but ‘10s American movies — as sacrilegious, its sequel is deftly sensitive to one of the most awkward chapters of life. The giddy sense of imagination is a little less boundless this time. One could certainly look at “Inside Out 2” like a parent eyeing a teenager and thinking the younger version was cuter and less whiny. But the filmmakers of “Inside Out 2” have managed again to filter complex psychological developments into a bright, entertaining head trip that in its finest moments packs an emotional wallop.

I would peg Joy as the real protagonist of the first “Inside Out.” That movie, really, hinged on the blue-haired sprite’s desperate race to preserve all the happiness of childhood. Aided especially by Poehler’s brilliant voice work, Joy — a kind of stand-in for parents wanting only the best for their kids — was less just another emotion than an unflagging guardian learning that sometimes letting go is best.

This time, Riley feels more the main character, though Anxiety, an excitable, orange, bug-eyed Muppet-like thing, is increasingly calling the shots. Riley (voiced by Kensington Tallman) is now taller, has a few good friends and is still playing hockey. Her internal landscape is shifting, too. Boy Band Island is done, for one. And out of her pools of memories, new strands are growing a tree-shaped Belief System. Just who Riley is, at her core, gets tested and reshaped in “Inside Out 2.”

Some of the brain trust on the film are also new. Kelsey Mann, a longtime Pixar veteran, takes over directing from Pete Docter (now the Pixar chief) to make his debut feature. The script is by Meg LeFauve, who co-wrote the original, and Dave Holstein.

My recollections of “Inside Out” — if my memory orbs have been correctly filed — are mostly of all those glowing balls of the past and Joy and Sadness’ mad dashes through the back of Riley’s mind, a pun-filled inner space both literal and metaphorical. Plus, we can’t forget, Richard Kind’s voice as Bing Bong.

Much is the same in “Inside Out 2” (though, alas, Bing Bong sleeps with the fishes). But the film is a little more tilted outside Riley’s mind. As the school year is coming to a close, Riley heads to a weekend hockey camp that’s a preview of her high-school life to come.

New stresses are developing. Her pals (voiced by Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green and Grace Lu) are headed to a different school, Riley learns. On the ice, what was once carefree play is becoming a more complicated experience plagued by self-doubt. At camp, Riley really wants to impress an older star player named Val (Lilimar Hernandez). To do so, Anxiety, usurping Joy, increasingly sacrifices core beliefs to manically build Riley a new identity. Joy and others, booted from the control room, again have to work frantically to mount a resistance, while at the same time learning a lesson about the need to reconcile — not just try to forget — less happy memories.

“Inside Out 2,” which arrives after a period of soul-searching for Pixar, both recaptures some of the animation studio’s magic and reminds us that rekindling the ambitious spirit of Pixar’s heyday isn’t so easy. The sequel stays close to familiar neural pathways. There are new cerebral puns — the echoing depths of a Sar-”chasm,” a brainstorm that rains light bulbs — and a new cartoon relic of childhood to replace Bing Bong: a character named Bloofy, voiced by Ron Funches. It’s easier to see where this “Inside Out” is headed and a little harder to be dazzled by what unfolds.

But it’s aim is remarkably true. Confronting the struggles and realities of anxiety, particularly for teenage girls, could hardly be a more laudable undertaking. And the care is taken here to illustrate how new impulses can run roughshod over a young person and throw their internal compass out of whack.

Pixar, like other studios wrestling with a new media landscape, has dabbled in recent years with more short-form and digital-friendly content. But Docter has steered Pixar back to focusing on feature films with robust theatrical releases. (“Inside Out 2” is to exclusively play for 100 days in theaters.) So in more ways than one, Mann’s movie feels like a much-needed feature-length refuge from today’s anxiety-producing devices. Unlike many of Pixar’s moving metaphors of parenthood, this one is, affectingly, for the kids.

“Inside Out 2,” a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for some thematic elements. Running time: 96 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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